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SIDIC Periodical XXX - 1997/3
Holiness in Judaism and Christianity (Pages 02 - 06)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Under godís eyes: reverence, ethics and Jewish holiness
Edward K. Kaplan


Through the lips of Moses, God admonishes the people of Israel: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). Such a call, whatever the condition of our belief, rings our hearts with a drive to become, at the very least, decent human beings, striving toward righteousness. The ideal of holiness steps above these lofty ethical goals.

To explore some current possibilities of this calling we might begin with Rudolf Otto's "idea of the holy" (das Heilige), which describes emotions of fear and trembling in face of a transcendent Presence. According to Otto, holiness ushers our mind into a mysterious dimension of reality--consoling or terrifying--beyond our common boundaries. These intuitions of the sacred lend a sort of electric charge to worldly existence, almost making the ultimate tangible.

As I understand the term, however, "holiness" refers to a profoundly personal encounter, as an intimate transcendence addresses our lives and transforms our manner of perceiving reality. Human actions can become holy as they answer God Who enters our awareness. Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose thinking has influenced this essay, calls this sacred intuition "radical amazement." The spiritually sensitive person "shudders" with an insight into the world's spiritual dimension.

Direct experiences of the Holy are rare indeed, and so traditional Judaism asserts that God revealed laws to steer us toward sanctification. The legal norms of halakhah, codes and rabbinic interpretations of Scripture, prescribe ritual and ethical actions (called the mitzvot or commandments). My own yearning falls short of this faith. For many reasons--intellectual reservations, resistance to authority--I cannot accept the full yoke of the commandments. Yet, as an observant though non-traditional Jew, I take Orthodoxy as a standard of reference, valid within that ethnic and political heartland but inadequate for those of us whose frontiers are wider.

What is holiness for people who do not or cannot devote themselves punctiliously to God's commandments? As a secularized person who longs for the Divine Presence, my religious commitments live within the tensions between aspiration and confidence. I yearn for a harmony of faith and intellectual integrity. Adherence to tradition cannot (and should not, in my opinion) be absolute, but we can revere its ideals while striving to lead holy lives.

Beyond Righteousness
We begin the journey by admitting that holiness seems foreign to our daily experience. Yet we are able to reflect upon holiness in relation to the Platonic ideals of "the good, the true, and the beautiful." But our thirst for ultimate meaning cannot be assuaged by ethical and esthetic fulfillment alone. It is difficult enough to be virtuous, but most people are not content even if they achieve a generous measure of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Holiness sustains these temporal standards but it exceeds them. We seek--and sometimes we hear--a still, small voice beyond or within our incompleteness.

Judaism and Christianity point to a personal God Who commands us to be holy. The Hebrew Bible does not idealize either God or humankind, for the ancient world was as plagued as ours by brutality, political vice, lack of faith in God, and cravings for sensory gratification. Our ancestors were as imperfect as we are, despite being pursued by God's absolute demand for righteousness. Yet we are able to advance God's hopes for the biblical patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets as we represent truth, justice, and compassion to the powerful and the corrupt. One of our great challenges, as people enriched by Scripture, is to help secularized people open their imagination to this religious thinking.

Our world remains unredeemed and the boundaries between sacred and profane are not complete. The accomplishments of the twentieth century are both magnificent and atrocious, as cruelty and callousness compete with mercy and selfless generosity. For most of us God's voice is silent, its distant echo emanating from books and embodied by a few witnesses to their encounter with the Ultimate. Recent history depicts many people who embody holy ideals, such as Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama.

The ancient centuries speak all the more urgently to our millennium. The biblical call for holiness renews God's vision of redemption. More concretely, less celebrated individuals perform righteous actions and words, whether spoken or written. Each of us, internally, has at least hoped that holiness is a plausible goal, leading to commitment. How do we magnify these intimations of ultimate truth and integrate them into our lives?

Modern faith is paradoxical, including both the promise and the impossibility of faith. On the one hand, religious texts and multitudes of interpreters and believers testify to God's power; on the other hand, something within our mind resists the enticement of such confidence. To say that we can "leap into faith" beyond the mind is to beg the question. Yet we can try to live faith before comprehending it.

The task of modern religion, it seems to me, is to place the individual, as it were, under the eyes of God. Even if we are not confident that the living God, as the Bible and many interpreters assert, is available to us--or even that such a God exists--we can strive to live, as Heschel puts it, "in a manner compatible with a Divine Presence." As seekers of faith, exiled from certainty, we can embrace God's call to holiness. It is a practical question: action first, theory (or theology) later.

Abraham Heschel's Depth Theology
For me, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) exemplifies the Jewish path to holiness. Born in Warsaw, Poland, and raised in his family's Hasidic community, he earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1933 from the University of Berlin, emigrating to the United States in 1940. All his books and essays in one way or another translate his experience of God's presence. His life embodies his answer to God's original call to humankind: Where are you?

Heschel's writings unveil a holy dimension. In God in Search of Man. A Philosophy of Judaism (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955), his theological magnum opus, he declares that "[t]he Bible is holiness in words. . . . It is as if God took these Hebrew words and breathed into them of His power, and the words became a live wire charged with His spirit. To this very day they are hyphens between heaven and earth" (p. 244). God is not silent, according to Heschel, but available through the writings of tradition. In order to perceive God's "pathos," the divine concern, we explore texts with reverence and an open mind.

Study can refine our sensitivity to God, the energetic source of righteousness: "Our problem, then, is how to share the certainty of Israel that the Bible contains that which God wants us to know and to hearken to; how to attain a collective sense for the presence of God in the Biblical words. In this problem lies the dilemma of our fate, and in the answer lies the dawn or the doom" (ibid., p. 246). From God's perspective, Heschel's hyperbole is an understatement, since the Divine cares more about the survival of civilization than any human being.

Now, in all honesty, I admire Heschel's confidence but I cannot imitate it, at least spontaneously. Faith--and especially his certainty about God's will--does not come instinctively to me, nor, do I suspect, does faith pulse with regularity even for a great many religiously committed people. My faith in God is not a given but a task. Do we justify even this provisional faith by the necessity of leading a righteous life? Is ethics enough?

Continuing this realistic view, I ask if a secular standard of righteousness can be as satisfying--and of similar practical value--as the spiritual measure of holiness? In other words, should we even strive for holiness in our contemporary world in which the most elementary forms of regard for others are lacking? Civility is increasingly absent while distrust and contempt for our neighbors (and oneself) have become the norm. Can we justify a commitment to holiness while civil wars rage in several countries, provoked by perceived religious differences and by nationalistic and economic ambitions? Does religion cause more discord than it can resolve?

The touchstone of holiness can help religious institutions truly to become an instrument of justice and compassion toward all peoples--believers and non-believers alike. First, we must distinguish religion's dogmatic and ethnic elements from God Who transcends them. Fundamentalism, which takes (selected) texts as unambiguously authoritative, denies the necessity to interpret them--thus exonerating the faithful from personal responsibility. As a Jew, I am alarmed at the conflicts in today's Israel between ultra-Orthodox, modern, and secular Jews, but one also thinks of the medieval Crusades, Bosnia, tribal warfare, and other feared--and poorly understood--expressions of "fundamentalism." God cannot be blamed (or praised) for human choices.

Heschel's notion of "depth theology" avoids such oversimplification. He distinguishes theology (or dogma) from "pre-theological insights" that place us directly before God and potentially convey to our minds the reality beyond concepts. Depth theology guides us toward an encounter with the living God by recognizing the inadequacy of systems. Since creed does not adequately convey the Divine, a commitment to holiness can preserve the universal core of particular expressions of God.

Heschel stated in his 1965 address "No Religion Is An Island" that people can share holiness by admitting their spiritual dissatisfaction: "I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith" (reprinted in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996, pp. 239-40). A radical humility helps establish community at a fundamental level.

Modern faith thrives within the tensions between its negative and positive poles. Just as "the tragic insufficiency of human faith" can open us to God's will, so ritual and ethical acts make us candidates for spiritual insight. Interfaith dialogue and genuine cooperation occur between "candidates" who have not yet settled on the shores.

Readiness Before God
Jews meet the Divine through observance and learning. The Sabbath--weekly sanctifying of the Seventh Day of Creation--is both the royal road and the most ordinary path to holiness. Sabbath observance allows all sorts of Jews--the majority of whom are not true believers--to nurture forms of self-expression that are familiar to the religiously-motivated. Honoring the Sabbath includes reading, study, discussion, and relaxation, in addition to prayer and other rituals.

Sabbath worship is accessible to everyone; the specialized knowledge required to participate is minimal. Sabbath is an occasion for gathering--with friends, family, the community. Sabbath nurtures inwardness through personal and communal prayer, and reflection on sacred texts. Non-observant Jews may sense the spiritual dimension of acts required by religious legislation through the ritual sanctification of food and wine, sexual intercourse between spouses, satisfactory repose, as well as prayer and Torah study. People can stop working for a day, cease pursuing entertainment, and focus their attention on values they might "hold sacred," in the colloquial sense of the term. From there but one step remains to holiness. Heschel calls the Sabbath, in his book of that name, our "cathedral in time."

Readiness before God is the primary focus of the "High Holy Days," the ten-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and ending on the fast-day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). During that time, it is said, God judges our actions and decides whether or not to inscribe us in the "Book of Life." Facing God within the community we wonder if we deserve to live or die during the coming year.

Realistically, however, most Jews attend synagogue only on these three days and do not contemplate repentance. Nor is it easy to place our failings, and other details of our lives, before the Almighty. Yet, whatever the extent of our habitual observance or indifference, the Days of Awe can direct our spiritual yearnings. As we experience "the tragic insufficiency of human faith" we might achieve true contrition. That is the key: humility before God leading to contrition. Repentance (or in Hebrew, tshuvah or "turning" to God) opens us to the Holy. We are so fallible, imperfect, yet we desire to be righteous. During such times we can embrace holiness as a plausible aim.

Holiness and Radical Reverence
Today as in Bible times, Jews are in constant dialogue with our neighbors. We have always been sent out into the world. Holiness is the spirit of the founders--Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Moses and Miriam, and hosts of ancestors laboring with their distressed families, with the ominous nations--as well as with God. Our individual striving for holiness includes a political dimension. Holiness is the foundation of morality.

Social movements can create "days of awe" for entire nations. The American civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s presented vast opportunities for racial reconciliation through interreligious cooperation. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s fostered a broadly ecumenical struggle for holiness that validated the preciousness of non-Christian religions. The bridge is narrow between holiness and justice but it is open. Poverty, political oppression, ecological ruin, and civil and ethnic conflicts are today's most urgent tests. Nothing less than a passion for holiness should guide our commitments.

The Bible claims that all individuals are holy, created in God's image. Reverence for God's image in each and every person is religion's ultimate challenge and can become the energetic source of our morality. A common dedication to human holiness, beyond but including justice and compassion, can sanctify our lives. As Heschel insisted, to be human we must be more than human.

Religious education can transform our very consciousness of the world and of others so that we may experience God's presence. For true piety joins heart and mind in an experience of holiness -- or its absence. Such moral ambition must coexist, however, with a radical humility. The integrity of secular rationalism cannot be ignored. Institutions cannot effect real change without a "passion for truth" (the title of Heschel's final book). Only such a challenge to "the tragic insufficiency of human faith" can undermine totalitarian thinking.

Yet today, presumption seems to dominate religious discourse, especially those authorities who wield political power. Our theologies are usually on the defensive. The biblical insight of "fear of God" (yirat Elohim), which recalls our cognitive nakedness before the Creator, can cure the self-deception of spiritual pride; this raw cognitive emotion can become a sophisticated humility. (Fear and trembling, as this spiritual dread is also known, includes an intimation of mystery in addition to biblical examples of divine punishment.) Religious or ideological fanaticism, the coercive idolatry of human thought, may crumble under this combination of awe and modesty.

Yet life's dangers are compelling, real. Hatred of enemies is a bracing force and appears to be a political necessity. But these emotions destroy our ability to perceive others as human beings. Reconciliation is not incompatible with political realism. How can we assert (or even believe) that each and every person is holy?

Biblical thinking restores the balance. Combined with an intense spiritual dread, love of God (ahavat Elohim) can overcome the panic that nourishes hatred and contempt. An impulse to be cruel may be countered by awe of the Almighty, which places self-defense into a higher, prophetic light. When we commit even a misdemeanor, we know that other people or civil law enforcement officials may see us. When we contemplate a crime against the Holy, only God notices. We become truly autonomous morally when we feel that, as Heschel's theology of divine pathos puts it, God cares what we do.

What I call "radical reverence" joins secular ethics and religious awe. Radical reverence combines transcendent love, sacred dread, and veneration and can overcome anxiety, pessimism, and our inhibitions. This commitment to the holy dimension of existence can lead us, concretely, to protect human sanctity. Its emotional impact, not just the idea, leads to action. Belief is secondary or irrelevant within the act itself. Moral courage carries a sacred charge.

Is modern religion equal to the task? What faith is accessible to most of us, who cannot emulate Heschel's confidence in God? The ideal of Judaism as a source of holiness, beyond the good and the beautiful, beyond creed, guides us through the labyrinth of competing notions of reality: "Faith does not spring out of nothing. It comes with the discovery of the holy dimension of our existence. Suddenly we become aware that our lips touch the veil of the Holy of Holies. Our face is lit up for a time with the light from behind the veil. Faith opens our hearts for the entrance of the Holy" (Heschel, "Faith," 1944; reprinted in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 339). Heschel asserted this confidence while his European Jewish worlds were being desecrated and demolished. Despite his anguish, he trusted God.

Radical reverence can unite people of all traditions who continue to debate ideology and tactics while preserving our vision of redemption. Maintaining our readiness before God educates our sensitivity to holiness, human or divine. Not as an ethical slogan but as a visceral affirmation which can overwhelm suspicion, anger, callousness, or the zeal to destroy. That remains our responsibility: rising to the standards God has defined. We pray for the courage to remain alert.

Edward K. Kaplan is Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Research Associate at the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA. He is the author of Holiness in Words: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Poetics of Piety (SUNY Press, 1996) which is reviewed in this issue. A French translation will be published by Les Editions du Cerf in Paris. Volume One of his intellectual and cultural biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel, co-authored with Samuel Dresner, will be published in 1998 by Yale University Press.


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